Shopping is the name of the game in SoHo, but architecture buffs will more interested in the 600 buildings that make up the Cast-Iron Historic District.
The first New York neighborhood to get an acronym as its official name, SoHo — short for “South of Houston” — is synonymous with upscale shopping. Today, the neighborhood is so trendy and busy that it’s hard to believe that in the mid-20th century, it had earned nicknames like “The Wastelands of New York” and “Hell’s Hundred Acres.” Change came in the 1960s and ’70s when cheap rents and vast loft spaces attracted pioneering artists, including Chuck Close, Philip Glass and Twyla Tharp. The New York Landmarks Preservation Commission established the SoHo-Cast Iron Historic District in 1973, protecting the area’s gorgeous 19th-century cast-iron factories and warehouses, and a National Historic Landmark designation followed in 1978. Soon, galleries moved in, followed by big-spending collectors, then celebrities, designer shops and, finally, mainstream chain stores. These days, you won’t find many starving artists — or any affordable rents — but the area retains a bit of the creative spirit that spurred the gentrification movement now known as “The SoHo Effect.”
SoHo’s northern border is Houston Street (pronounced “how-ston,” not like the city in Texas) and extends south to Canal Street, west to Sixth Avenue and east to Crosby Street. The Prince Street subway station on the N and R lines makes for a good starting point. Taxis are easy to spot throughout the neighborhood, although competition to hail one can be fierce and the streets are often congested. (Keep in mind that the meter keeps ticking, even if the cab’s not moving.) Walking can also be slow-going, particularly on weekends, when sidewalks are clogged with shoppers. The car and foot traffic mellows after storefronts are shuttered, but the neighborhood’s many restaurants and bars keep it hopping well into the evening.
Broadway, which runs the north-south length of the neighborhood, is lined with massive outposts of stores like Sephora, Old Navy, H&M, Bloomingdale’s and Japanese-import Uniqlo (beloved for its affordable clothing basics). Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas designed the flagship Prada store at 575 Broadway; its unique amphitheater-style interior is a popular attraction for fashionistas as well as curious onlookers. A half-block south, Scholastic’s flagship houses more than 6,000 square feet of books, toys, games and interactive exhibits. Dean & Deluca and Balthazar Bakery are longtime favorites for a gourmet pick-me-up during a shopping excursion.
On side streets, you’ll find smaller designer boutiques and get a better feel for the area’s history. Walk west on Prince from Broadway and you’ll pass the Mercer Hotel — still a favorite with movie and rock stars — and come to quieter streets like Greene and Wooster. Some of these charming blocks are still paved with Belgian blocks (a.k.a. cobblestones). Over 600 cast-iron buildings make up the SoHo Cast-Iron Historic District, which was extended in 2010. Distinguishing marks include decorative façades with Corinthian columns, ornate fire escapes and extra-tall windows. There aren’t any green spaces or major museums in the neighborhood, so these historic buildings are the main draw — aside from the shopping, of course. One of the area’s biggest attractions, the Apple Store, housed in a former post office at 103 Prince Street, combines many classic SoHo qualities like art, design, architecture and innovation. The whole neighborhood is also dotted with street stalls hawking artisan jewelry, accessories and artwork, which can make for memorable souvenirs from this former artists’ enclave.